This is a post by Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan
“Handwashing is the best way to keep yourself and others safe during your travels. Wash and dry your hands carefully after touching public surfaces, and before and after eating.”
This was good advice from InterCity to its passengers, to minimise the risks from Covid 19, before its services were halted as part of Alert Level 4. Of course, it is good advice in general.
It’s useless advice, however, if passengers have no access to handwashing facilities.
In the midst of this Covid-19 crisis, it might seem trivial to consider the design of long distance buses. But the crisis has highlighted some systemic problems that – when services recommence – will compromise the health and safety of travellers. And, importantly, of the wider community. When services were running normally, the main provider, InterCity and Skip, had more than 20 bus services leaving Auckland each day, with over 130 services operating throughout New Zealand. Passengers must be able to maintain good personal hygiene on these services, for the good of the whole community.
New Zealand’s economy is having a shake-up at the moment that could easily result in more people rationalising their car ownership to save costs or returning to their hometown because living costs while unemployed are cheaper there. Domestic tourism is likely to expand well before international tourism does, too.
Establishing a National Public Transport Network needs to be a part of our economic recovery after Covid as much as it needs to be a response to climate change.
We have considered the off-bus infrastructure needed to better support long distance bus services. But the design of buses themselves is important for comfort, amenity, safe working conditions and wider community wellbeing.
This is a post about the buses themselves.
Credit for this image and the leading image: Flixbus
There are many health benefits from cycling. More cycleways are being built throughout New Zealand. But for those wanting to travel around the country there are gaps in the network. Cycling on main highways and many rural roads is dangerous in New Zealand. A traveller should also be able to cycle to a bus stop in one town and cycle once they reach their destination.
InterCity’s policy about carrying bikes is impractical. Bikes can be carried on some services but not others. The policy states that a bike box is required, which prevents cycling being a first and last leg option for the journey, and means families taking cycling holidays on off road cycling trails have to store the boxes somewhere, which is not always possible. Knowing this, plenty of drivers use their discretion, and accept bikes without boxes. This makes it very hard to plan trips if you need to take a bike.
In contrast, some overseas companies plan to carry a number of bikes on each trip. Many Flixbuses can carry up to 5 bikes before needing to put any in the luggage compartment.
Low emission buses
There is a danger in the post Covid-19 environment that the most support will be given to the high transport emission industries such as airlines. But there are health benefits for both the planet and individuals by investing in bus emission reductions. If we are to reduce emissions to 50% of 1990 levels, as we will need to do to do our part in keeping temperature rise to only 1.5 degrees, we will need to both switch to lower emission forms of transport and reduce emissions in all the modes. Diesel powered long distance buses already have significantly lower emissions footprint per passenger than planes or cars. But unlike aircraft, where dramatic emission reductions remain in the distant future, the technology for buses to cut their carbon footprints is all but ready for adoption. The obvious technology for New Zealand is electric buses. Other possibilities are bio-diesel and hydrogen fuel cells.
Z-Energy already produce a small amount of bio-diesel from waste tallow. There is the potential to produce more bio-diesel from waste streams and this needs investigating.
Flixbus had been experimenting with electric buses in Europe. While it ran into technical support issues and has abandoned the European experiment it is now planning to run electric buses in the US. National Express is the UK’s largest long distance bus company, which in normal times had been running over 1,800 services every day. In February 2020, the company pledged to become the first UK coach company to transition to a fully electric fleet by 2035.
Flixbus is also experimenting with hydrogen powered buses.
We need to see similar commitments in New Zealand.
Image Credit: Bus Queensland
Catering for disabled passengers
We will eventually get through the current crisis. But we already know that New Zealand has an ageing population. Investment in buses with wheelchair and wider disability access is critical if we are to support their mobility. Designing buses that allow easy access for wheelchair users or for people who have difficulty walking up steep steps is achievable.
Comments on InterCity’s own publicly open Facebook page indicate some of the problems.
“double deckers are all very well but not for elderly or handy capped (sic) you cant get up the stairs and drivers can get so rude when they see you”
“I had a run in with a driver in Whangarei because I couldn’t get upstairs coz had a knee replacement. I booked for downstairs but was told I had to have a Gold Pass. I wasnt told that when I booked though.”
“I can’t get up them in 80 with walking stick”
“My elderly mum doesnt use buses anymore. Apparently drivers are not allowed to assist with getting on or off.”
It is clear InterCity’s rules have contributed to making it very difficult for those with limited mobility to travel by bus.
As our drivers travel alone, we do have some limitations regarding the level of assistance we are able to provide, and therefore passengers must be able to board and disembark the bus without assistance from the driver.
Passengers who require somebody to assist them on and off the bus must arrange for this assistance at pick-up and drop-off points.
For health and safety reasons, drivers are not permitted to assist in carrying of passengers. Passengers are advised that InterCity operates buses designed for long distance travel and that these vehicles may feature steps into the bus, as well as internal stairways to passenger seating areas.
This policy might be understandable in the midst of an epidemic. But these harsh policies are their standard policies.
Americans seem to be more attuned to the needs of disabled people. For example, Greyhound say:
We can help you get on and off the bus, and give you a hand with your baggage, wheelchair or mobility scooter. Just let your driver or customer service agent know at the station, and don’t be shy to ask them again if you need something during your trip, especially if you want to get off the bus during a stop.
Bus Queensland’s long distance buses try to cater for passengers who use wheelchairs; this seems to be a legislative requirement for all new buses in Australia. Wheelchair lifts are available and if the person travelling needs a carer, the carer will travel free of charge.
Loading and unloading bags
If InterCity’s policy about assisting elderly passengers was about protecting bus drivers from injury, there is no consistency in their concern when it comes to loading and unloading bags. The health and safety issues drivers face in handling bags are far more extreme. Rarely do they have baggage handlers to assist them. The systems used on New Zealand buses make the job difficult both for single story buses and double deckers, with drivers often having to bend double to crawl under raised doors and into baggage areas. Ideally, much of this heavy work would be somehow automated.
Image credit: https://toilet-guru.com/bus.php
And finally, back to the handwashing facilities.
Bus passengers need access to handwashing facilities and toilets.
In the internet of everything, it is no surprise to find a site that discusses bus toilets:
In an absolute sense, the toilet on board a long-haul bus will be among the worst toilets you are likely to encounter. Crude, uncomfortable, and smelly. But the best toilet in the world is the one that’s available when you really need it, when not having one would be a disaster. When you have to stay on the bus for another hour or two, a bus toilet can be the best toilet ever.
New Zealand is unusual in not providing on-board toilets on its long distance buses. Greyhound Australia have on-board bathrooms as do Greyhound in the United States. Flixbus, which operates in Europe and the US, have toilets on all their coaches. So do the buses operated by National Express in the UK.
In a recent post we illustrated the poor toilet facilities at the Auckland SkyCity depot.
Taupo is another example. There can be three buses there at once, some of them double deckers. There’s no way that two basins in the men’s toilet, none in the disabled toilet and three in the women’s toilet is sufficient. Nor the one soap dispenser apiece.
Auckland and Taupo and many other stops have inadequate facilities, but most of the toilet facilities provided can be overwhelmed by too many buses or have issues that put the facilities out of action temporarily. Just as both aeroplanes and airports are equipped with bathrooms, resilience requires that both the buses and the bus stops do too.
Covid 19 highlights that buses without these facilities are putting people at risk.
New Zealand is lagging behind other countries
Overseas, on-board toilets exist on long distance buses mainly because legislation requires them.
In New Zealand, it seems that legislation is required to improve bus design, including the ergonomics of luggage handling, providing bathrooms, wheelchair lifts and bicycle racks. Legislation is probably also required to mandate the level of service that companies and drivers should be providing in terms of assistance and ensuring everyone has time at stops to get to the bathroom and to wash their hands.
While we are in lockdown, high mobility may seem like a dream from another era. But this is the right time to plan. In a post Covid world, improving long distance buses is an affordable and achievable way to build on the existing network, which already links most towns and cities.
This could be the first step of re-establishing a high quality National Public Transport Network which will be so important for wellbeing, access and regional development, as we attempt to recover sustainably from the crisis.
But how can we plan for a high quality low carbon regional bus network, or get some change in the legislative framework? Even the technical reference group advising the Climate Change Commission is missing a public transport expert. Without a transport minister focused on the issue, the issue might have to fall on a backbench MP to push forward a private members bill.
Long distance buses and the infrastructure to support them do not feature in the transport policies of any major party, but perhaps this election year, they could?
Kawakawa public toilets. Source: Te Ara